Map of South Sudan
Map of South Sudan

JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN - Wau authorities have beckoned civilians who fled the South Sudanese town during three days of looting and killing to return home, insisting that things have returned to normal, but some residents say they're too afraid to go home.

Some of those who left Wau say they have not been able to locate family members who fled in different directions during the violence. Thousands of residents sought refuge at a U.N. compound, churches and other safe havens.

Wau Mayor Akol Akol Agith tried to assure residents through public statements and street postings that his government had everything under control. He said authorities had deployed police and military forces to secure the town.

“The disturbance is over now," he said. "It was just some criminals who took advantage of the chaotic situation and looted shops.”

Agith said the state government was doing everything it could to reassure civilians that Wau was safe.

“Whether you’re a civil servant or just a resident, you should go to your home," he said. "We have distributed posters on walls and doors assuring people that it is safe for them to return now.”

43 deaths

It is still not clear how many people were killed during the three-day rampage, but government spokesman Michael Makuei said that as of Tuesday morning, at least 39 civilians and four police officers had been reported killed. Residents said several other people were still missing.

The mayor said a security committee had been formed to track down those responsible for the killings and lootings, while another committee was set up to determine the number of casualties and missing persons.

Many residents said they were still terrified by the killings, which they saw being carried out by uniformed soldiers against unarmed civilians in Wau.

One resident, who declined to be identified for fear of repercussions, said he thought Wau still was not safe.

“Up to now, people are not really secure because some of the soldiers are still moving around,” he said.

The resident said he was separated from members of his family when fighting broke out Friday. He said one of his children was still missing.

“My younger son is out of the town. And there are people still out of the town in a place called Ngo Halima and Bringi. ... More than 15,000 children, women and elders, they are there now,” he said.

National government officials in Juba said they had information indicating the violence in Wau was carried out by a new a rebel group. Makuei said the group was led by a veteran South Sudanese politician who was governor of the former Western Bahr el Ghazal state.

“It ... has been started in South Sudan by Ali Tamim Fartak, who is from Raja [and] as you know is one of our Muslim people, and he decided to set up an Islamic movement, which he calls an Islamic movement for the people of Raja,” Makuei said.

Makuei added that he had reason to think some elements of the country’s regular forces joined the movement. He said others who had joined included Darfur's Janjaweed and members of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda.

The group, numbering about 700, was sent from Khartoum, he said, with half going to Raja and half to Wau. The Raja-bound group "did not succeed," but the other force was responsible for "this havoc which is happening in Wau.”

Makuei said a committee led by National Health Minister Riek Gai Kok had been formed to investigate the attack.

Account disputed

The SPLM-In Opposition (SPLM-IO) shadow governor of Wau, Peter Tingo, disputed the minister's version of what happened in Wau. He said the two groups that attacked Raja and Wau were indeed linked but not with an Islamic movement. He said those two groups had become sympathetic to the SPLM-IO because of government-sponsored violations against their communities in Western Bahr el Ghazal.

“We, the I-O group, are present along Western Bahr el Ghazal. We abide by the cease-fire and security arrangements," Tingo said. "But the other side doesn’t respect the agreement and hence the violations and security breaches. So we are on the defensive here, and it’s our right to defend ourselves and communities.”

Tingo alleged it was government policy to criminalize and punish the Fertit people of Western Bahr el Ghazal.

“The government treats the people of Western Bahr el Ghazal and especially the Fertit people as though they’re criminals," he said. "And this is an excuse to justify all these violations against them.”

Andrea Mayar, the newly appointed governor of Wau, was in Juba on Tuesday to be sworn in by President Salva Kiir. Mayar was appointed after his predecessor, Elias Waya, was relieved from his post by presidential decree on Friday.